The Mailbag: Deploring ‘the Deplorables’

Last Updated by Michael Getler on

Hillary Clinton, by all accounts, had a pretty bad few days during the past week or so. By now, those following the news have heard about what went wrong many times over. She took ill at the 9/11 commemoration ceremony in New York on Sept. 11 and then we — that is the public — were told that two days earlier she had been diagnosed by her physician with pneumonia. That exacerbated questions about her health and transparency that had been the subject of both news coverage and rumors.

The PBS NewsHour devoted its regular Politics Monday segment on Sept. 12 to the impact of these developments. That segment involves Susan Page of USA Today and Tamara Keith of NPR discussing issues with program co-anchor Gwen Ifill asking the questions.

But two days before Clinton was seen buckling at the 9/11 ceremony, she also made news with a comment at a fund-raiser which started out this way: “You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.”

And those comments, too, became the focus of much press coverage and also part of that NewsHour's politics segment on the following Monday.

But the focus of this mailbag is on comments, contained within a question, made on that Monday segment by Ifill, not Clinton. About a dozen viewers called or wrote to me about Ifill’s comments, and some others posted comments to the same effect on the NewsHour’s website. Here’s what she said. I have italicized that portion of her phrasing that has drawn criticism.

GWEN IFILL: So, here is the thing I’m curious about. Is what she [Clinton] said true, or is the way she said it the problem? She said that half of Donald Trump’s supporters — and half of them do believe that Muslims should be banned. Half of them do believe that blacks are lazy. Half of them do say they believe many of the more offensive things that he has said from the stump. Is what she said wrong?

And here’s the video of the segment.

Here are some of the calls and emails, followed by my thoughts. The first two messages are transcripts from callers.

Here Are the Messages

I’m calling regarding PBS NewsHour episode September 12, specifically Politics Monday and the Gwen Ifill quote, which caused my jaw to drop when I heard it so that I had to go back and read the transcript to confirm what I thought I heard is what I actually heard, which was: “Half of them do believe that Muslims should be banned. Half of them do believe that blacks are lazy. Half of them do say they believe many of the more offensive things that he has said from the stump. Is what she said wrong?” So, anyways, it sounded as though Ms. Ifill was expressing her opinion as fact. And I just thought that was very wrong.

~ ~ ~

I was listening to PBS NewsHour and they were discussing Clinton’s comment about the despicable basket of Trump supporters. When they were discussing it, it was referenced by Gwen Ifill that, well, maybe that  it’s also the fact that Trump says all of these things such as that blacks are lazy. I took a double take. I can’t find it on the internet. Now Trump may have said lots of stupid things in the past and I’m sure he’s going to say stupid things in the future, but I don’t recall him ever saying that blacks are lazy. I think this is a real problem when people make up things about what a person said. Hopefully you could look into that and see if that’s true or not, and maybe a correction could be made.

~ ~ ~

Tonight, in a segment on Hillary Clinton’s claim about 50% of Trump supporters, Gwen Ifill suggested there was some truth to Clinton’s claim, stating that half of Trump supporters do indeed think all Moslems should be deported and all blacks are lazy. Does she have facts to back up this statement or is it simply a reflection of her own bias?

El Jebel, CO

~ ~ ~

I am shocked and embarrassed because of what Gwen said Sept 12th, about 19 - 20 minutes into the broadcast. Her comments about Trump supporters were more inappropriate than what Hillary said about Trump supporters. This election coverage should be about the politicians and the issues, not about the offensive and decisive opinions of the news anchors concerning the public and voters. When Gwen said, in reference to Trump Supporters, that "half of them DO believe that Muslims should be banned, and half of them DO believe that blacks are lazy, and half of them do say that they believe many more of the OFFENSIVE things he has said from the stump" that is a direct quote by the way, is a ludicrous statement to make.

You need to take appropriate action so that she understands she was way out of line making those comments. You are a professional news organization, a well respected one. Your reputation is on the line in my opinion.

Shannon Patterson, Nokomis, FL

~ ~ ~

I have been watching the NewsHour almost every night since it came on the air in the Nixon era. I don't like Trump, never have and will never vote for him, but the interview tonight about Clinton's "deplorables" and Gwen Ifill's prepared "off-handed' characterizations of those deplorable people was the last straw.

Eliot, ME

~ ~ ~

When discussing Mrs. Clinton's comments on the "deplorables" who she said made up half of Mr. Trump's supporters, Ms. Ifill seemed (unbelievably) to support the notion that this group is a bunch of racists, sexists, etc. I am not naive in thinking that news show hosts do not have political opinions or leanings. I merely object to the blatant disregard to the assumption of political neutrality in reporting the "news." It is especially saddening to see this happen on a show that once was, I considered, the pinnacle of fair, objective reporting and political discussion.

Ossining, NY

My Thoughts

First, I need to say at the outset that I, too, was surprised at what Ifill said and how she appeared to answer her own question in a way that, in my view at the time, injected her own conclusions and, in effect, commentary into a segment meant to draw out the analysis of the guests.

On Saturday, the day after Clinton made her remarks, she issued a statement saying that she [Clinton] regretted using the word “half” to describe the Trump supporters she was referring to. On Tuesday, I asked the NewsHour whether it saw "this comment by Gwen during last night's politics segment as editorial commentary on her part?"

The NewsHour Responds

Here is the response from Executive Producer Sara Just:

"Gwen posed a question based on independent polling data about the opinions of Trump supporters, including recent polls conducted by  Reuters/Ipsos, Pew and more. These polls paint a picture of Americans with very different views about issues around race, Muslims, and some other issues in the campaign. She was not offering her own opinion; she was asking the NewsHour guests to comment on what the polls say and the political impact of Secretary Clinton's remarks."

My Thoughts (Continued)

The NewsHour's response is certainly plausible if that was the mindset behind the framing of Ifill's phrasing. But the problem with the way it aired is that there was no reference at all to polls; just an apparent statement of facts by the co-anchor of the program. So my view hasn't changed.

In the aftermath of Clinton’s original comments, a number of columnists and commentators did, indeed, write that what Clinton said was true. On Sept. 12, for example, Dana Milbank in The Washington Post wrote: “Hillary Clinton may have been unwise to say half of Donald Trump’s supporters are racists and other ‘deplorables.’ But she wasn’t wrong. If anything, when it comes to Trump’s racist support, she might have low-balled the number.” Charles Blow, writing that same day in The New York Times, said, “What Clinton said was impolitic, but it was not incorrect.”

Blow and others cited a number of public opinion polls that report on these divisions. Blow, for example, cited that Reuters/Ipsos poll in June that found: “Nearly half of Trump’s supporters described African-Americans as more ‘violent’ than whites. The same proportion described African-Americans as more ‘criminal’ than whites, while 40 percent described them as more ‘lazy’ than whites.”

Another Reuters/Ipsos online poll in July, Blow reported, found that 58 percent of Trump supporters have a “somewhat unfavorable” view of Islam and 78 percent believe Islam was more likely to encourage acts of terrorism. A February Public Policy Polling survey found “Trump’s support in South Carolina is built on a base of voters among whom religious and racial intolerance pervades.” What the poll found about those South Carolina supporters’ beliefs was truly shocking, he wrote.

If Ifill’s interjection in the segment was meant to reflect actual polling, which certainly could be the case as the NewsHour response claims, it would have been much better and more accurate to say something like “…and half of them, based on what some polls such as one by Reuters in June, tell us, do believe…” Alas, it didn't come out that way from Ifill, or appear that way, at least to some viewers, and to me.

Posted on Sept. 15, 2016 at 1:31 p.m.

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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